'Nothing prepared me for devastation', says Cambridge medic helping in Turkey-Syria quake

The team worked in the rubble of collapsed buildings to help survivors
The team worked in the rubble of collapsed buildings to help survivors Credit: Deborah Swann

A nurse who travelled to Turkey to help provide medical aid to survivors of the earthquake has said nothing prepared her for the devastation wrought by the disaster.

Deborah Swann was among a number of professionals deployed to the country with the UK International Search and Rescue team (UKISAR).

The earthquake, which struck the country and neighbouring Syria has so far claimed the lives of more than 45,000 people.

Ms Swann, who works as an emergency department nurse at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, was in the worst hit region - Hatay province and Antakya city.

Where the earthquake hit Credit: PA Graphics

She said: "We train hard in immersive exercises replicating real-life disasters, but nothing prepared [us] for the sight of devastation that greeted us.

"The fear, grief, terror, and desperation of the people of Hatay was palpable. I was in a collapsed building helping to free a man, trapped under a ceiling and pinned under his dead father, when a huge aftershock struck.

"I have never felt fear like it. We also had to run for our lives when there was a stampede of hundreds of people - a primeval fear."

Deborah and the team Credit: Deborah Swann

UKISAR, funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, sent 77 personnel from all over the UK, including medics, firefighters, engineers and search dogs.

Ms Swann and colleagues flew by chartered plane the day after the disaster. The team, which had to be ready within six hours, was self-sufficient, camped in a local football stadium, and survived on ration packs.

The highlight was rescuing eight survivors, and their search dogs helped other teams to locate three more. 

However, there were low moments for the group, which proactively searched wrecked buildings, rather than waiting for survivors to be brought out.

Ms Swann said: “The air was thick with concrete dust and smoke, and after a few days, decomposition.

"The atmosphere was panicked, noisy, and frenetic for the first five days and nights. The worst part is the utter despair.

"Not one building in Antakya was unaffected, and the people there are sleeping in the street for fear of further building collapse.

"Temperatures have been dropping to minus five at night and they desperately need tents and toilets.”

Some of the damage that confronted the team Credit: Deborah Swann

Ms Swann said it was vital that the British public donated to reputable causes, highlighting a desperate need for shelter in freezing conditions.

She said: “I was moved by the generosity of the people of Antakya and Hatay province. Despite losing everything, they offered us tea, food, and to share fires they were sitting by. They were so grateful, and shared their stories with us too.”

Her pleas came as on Monday another earthquake hit the area where she had worked – killing at least eight people, injuring more than 200 and sparking another search for people trapped under rubble.

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